The Obligation to Lie

The obligation to not contest a lie, or more usually a series of lies, is a tough proposition for somebody who prefers a frank back and forth to dishonesty or silence. Speak honestly, listen openly, let the conversation go where it goes, sometimes learn something important; that has always been my attitude. Given the choice between believing something that can be confirmed by fact and life experience and another thing that can only be confirmed by lying, I’ll always choose the first.

Sometimes in this life you will be obliged, in order to keep the peace, or to keep a troubled relationship alive, to agree that certain touchy subjects, including lying, will never be discussed in any detail. An agreement to disagree (sad phrase) about what is real and what is an invention is a resolve to leave things unresolved and not touch anything that may help solve a problem and strengthen a relationship. It is a mutual dishonesty pact.

Families are famous for entering into these kinds of understandings, often to protect someone from shame. Factions arise, those who defend a liar’s right not to be shamed and those who feel everyone would be better served by honesty, a thing once called “the best policy”. There are both practical and moral stances taken by each faction.

For the defenders of the liar’s right to be protected from the shame that caused the lie, the idea is that concealing the shame behind a lie protects everyone. The moral stance is that it is always wrong, no matter what, to expose someone to possible shame.

The other faction believes that shame can never be overcome by allowing an endless lie to prevail, in the name of covering the shame. Also, crucially, a lie serves nobody’s interest but the liar’s. The moral position is that it’s wrong to oblige someone else to lie, requiring a choice between dishonesty and silence, even to cover someone else’s shame.

Yes, it’s wrong to shame someone, even if they lie compulsively. Shaming someone for lying to conceal their shame only compounds the problem. Yes, it’s wrong to allow a series of lies to obliterate the truth. I’m not even thinking of our politics in the morally divided USA at the moment, but the constant doubling, tripling and quadrupling down on proven falsehoods offers a good snapshot of the problem with repeated lies that become the truth.

Your family member’s husband has abused his first wife, and cheated on her, prior to their ugly divorce. Shameful. Unspeakable. The simplest answer for his adult kids of the second marriage: he was not even married before, you fucking liar!

A lie can always be concocted to cover shame, even if it is a ridiculous lie, even if its revelation as a lie is inevitable. I pretend to go to work every day and every Friday I bring my paycheck, in cash, back to the wife. Who would imagine my wife would find the bill for my dead father’s credit cards I maxed out to bring her my fake paychecks every week when I was too depressed and desperate to work for a year? I rented a PO Box so those bills would never come to the house, I had no intention of ever paying them, why did I leave one in my pants pocket for the wife to find when she did the laundry? Pure bad fucking luck in a life that never gave me a fucking chance. Nothing that a strong agreement never to mention it again won’t fix.

We have the most prolific and litigious liar in American history, our recently defeated president, with his eternal 39% who love him unconditionally, find him a charismatic, daring, no bullshit teller of truth the rest of the politicians are too cowardly and hypocritical to say out loud. You will never change their firm belief that he constantly lies to defend a much higher truth than the one eggheads feebly claim exists. That truth is (insert truth here) and if you don’t like it why don’t we let the guns in the street decide who is right and who is fucking dead?

If you don’t want to argue with a liar, or contest the compulsive liar’s right to lie whenever he feels cornered, you can agree not to talk about the lies. That agreement will only get you so far, though — and it usually comes with a cost. It is not the kind of satisfying agreement one comes to with somebody after an honest exchange of views, after you actually understand more about the other person’s perspective. It is, at best, a kind of 39% agreement, like the “historically unpopular” Joe Biden’s media-touted rapidly slipping poll numbers, which are now about the same as Trump’s average approval numbers across four years of his glorious reign.

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